A bipartisan group of state lawmakers wants to open a 700-bed prison in south Thurston County that would specialize in housing inmates with mental illness.
The Department of Corrections embraced the idea, which surfaced Friday in a spending proposal negotiated by Democratic and Republican budget writers in the House.
The proposed capital budget, as part of distributing $3.8 billion for construction projects and grants, would devote $5.3 million to plan for a new prison expected to eventually cost $189 million.
It would be built at the Grand Mound site of the former Maple Lane juvenile-detention center, now mostly empty except for a pharmacy that fills prescriptions for state inmates.
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“We have about 3,500 offenders in the system with a mental health diagnosis,” Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said. “And while we have some pockets of programming, there’s not a facility that provides the full continuum.”
The prison couldn’t open until 2020 at the earliest, Warner said, but once it did it would address a second problem for Corrections: overcrowding.
The Legislature closed three prisons to balance recession-era budgets, but the state’s inmate population continues to climb. By 2020, Corrections expects to need roughly 1,000 more beds for medium-custody prisoners, the group that is driving the space shortage.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said if overcrowding forces lawmakers to build a new prison, he wants one that can turn lives around, not “just another box to throw people away in.”
Dunshee authored the capital budget with Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, whose district includes Maple Lane and who said a specialty prison would give inmates dealing with mental illness a safe place to heal separate from the general prison population.
Many employees at Maple Lane before it closed in 2011 due to budget cuts were trained in dealing with young detainees’ mental illnesses. Some former Maple Lane workers moved to Green Hill School, a juvenile detention center in nearby Chehalis.
“I’ve already talked to some of the guys who are over at Green Hill,” DeBolt said. “They’re pretty excited about this because I think it gives them a chance to use their skills to help people get back on their feet.”
The two lawmakers said their spending plan would boost mental health care in other ways, too.
It would provide $9 million to relieve some of the pressure on the local hospitals where people with dangerous mental illnesses have been improperly detained for lack of space. The state hospital association says much more is needed, however — as much as $24 million.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said making sure people with mental illness have a place to live would keep them from needing to be detained. Jinkins welcomed money in the spending plan for affordable-housing grants and loans. About 281 homes would be earmarked for people with chronic mental illness.
The capital budget also calls for two new wards at Western State Hospital to help the state grapple with a court order to improve wait times for evaluating and treating jail inmates. The Lakewood hospital would get other improvements, including safety measures and a new commissary and kitchen.
Outside of mental health, the plan funds projects across the state, many of them at schools and colleges.
It would move forward with a “readiness center” in Thurston County to replace two old armories in Olympia and Puyallup.
It provides money for a new building on the edge of the Capitol Campus meant to house State Patrol administrators and other, smaller agencies, a project that has been opposed by the Senate.
And it puts $75 million into Washington Wildlife and Recreation Fund grants for projects such as the final stretch of the Foothills National Recreation Trail through the Puyallup Valley.